On Friday, a group of concerned Muslims and I began a ritual, which has become all too familiar over the past seven years. We wake up early and meet at a local Muslim school, which serves as the gathering point for carpools or for trips to the metro as we make our way down to the Federal District Courthouse in Alexandria, VA so that we can fill the courtroom before each hearing, usually scheduled to begin at 9am.
Strange how familiar the courthouse is and the newly revitalized section of downtown Alexandria that surrounds it. So many memories. I remember praying outside in the courtyard, as pictured below, while the now finished nearby buildings were still under construction. And of being taunted by the construction workers atop those then unfinished buildings. As I walked into the courthouse, I knew the drill, leave your cell phone in the car (when we first starting coming here seven years ago, courthouse security would take your phone and give you a number so you could retrieve it later on), don’t wear heels, which will set off the walk-through metal detector, if you’re a woman wearing niqab, the full face-veil, come a little early as they might have to find a female guard to view your face, coats and jackets off, and photo ID out and ready for the security screener. On Friday, I handed my driver’s license to an older and very polite gentleman who then tried unsuccessfully to pronounce my last name but said rather joyfully, “Good morning, I remember you!” and indeed, I remember him and his colleagues well, many of the same faces that have been here for each trial over the last seven years.
Tensely, we waited until we were all through security, and then made our way to the elevators, no need to check the courtroom assignments, Judge Claude Hilton is on the 8th floor, Judge Brinkema is on the seventh and so on…Beginning the day’s proceedings was the usual court business of sentencing and something of a novelty, which many of us had not yet witnessed. Two new graduate lawyers were admitted to the bar in a short courtroom ceremony, their colleagues introduced them, their schools, and testified to knowledge of their upright character, and Judge Claude Hilton admitted them. Both men seems relieved and happy. Good luck to them, may their work be filled with the dignity and integrity, which is a credit to their profession.
Then it was Ali Asad Chandia’s turn. He was escorted in by federal marshals and wore a dark green jumpsuit with the words prisoner written in white letters across his upper back. Chandia was convicted in 2006 of providing material support (shipping paintballs, driving an LET official around the DC metro area and allowing him to use his computer) to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Judge Claude Hilton applied a terrorism enhancement at the original sentencing, which increased Chandia’s sentence from what would have normally been around six years to 15 years. However, in order to apply a terrorism enhancement, Judge Hilton is required to demonstrate that Chandia’s actions were intended to “influence a government through intimidation or coercion or to retaliate against a government.” It is on this latter requirement that the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has twice ruled for Chandia and against Judge Hilton indicating that the Appeals Court does not believe the use a terrorism enhancement is justified in this case.
On January 28th, 2011, Judge Hilton was clearly hostile to the defense attorney Marvin Miller. Hilton indicated his frustration while rocking back and forth in his chair by saying before Miller began his argument that “this is starting to be a career for me, think I’d hear the same thing I heard the first two times, I’d like to know what will be different.” About proposed revisions to the pre-sentencing report, Hilton said, “I listened to this twice, don’t think any other arguments will benefit me” and while visibly upset said, “I’ve heard enough argument…We don’t need to go through it forever, you’re going to keep disagreeing, there’s got to be a limit to how many times you tell me you disagree. I know you’re going to disagree.” The defense attorney and prosecutors agreed to meet and work on revising the pre-sentencing report, deleting numerous paragraphs about unrelated conspiracies. Judge Hilton said “that’ll be all right, I don’t care when” so the parties agreed to reconvene for Hilton’s third sentencing attempt on March 11, 2011.
On Friday, in addition to the usual prosecutor John Gibbs and his assistant, the controversial Assistant U.S. Attorney Gordon Kromberg was also in attendance. Kromberg made a name for himself in counterterrorism circles with the trials of Ali Timimi, Sami al-Arian, and the Paintball group. Judge Hilton wasted no time in dashing any hopes for a reduced sentence in his opening remarks by saying, “I find again that enhancement is warranted,” and then he preceded to read a list of facts from a prepared statement, which was more a re-statement of the prosecution’s findings of fact at trial than specific evidence indicating the intent on which the terrorism enhancement rests. Chandia’s lawyer Marvin Miller says he will appeal for a third time to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Before Judge Hilton re-imposed for what is now the third time a sentence of 15 years, Ali Asad Chandia was asked if he had anything he wanted to say but he declined. As Chandia left the courtroom, he turned to look back at his supporters and a smile spread across his face. He most likely will be transferred back to a Communications Management Unit (CMU) in Indiana or Illinois to continue serving his sentence. One of the benefits of Chandia’s extended stay here in Alexandria is that his son was able to visit his father regularly, even though the 30-minute visits are conducted by phone and through a looking glass. One day, on the way home, Chandia’s son remarked that the prison was his ”most favorite place in the whole world.” When asked why he said: “Because my father is here!”
I have a feeling we’ll be back here again at the Alfred V. Bryan Federal District Courthouse perhaps with the same defendant or another one and we’ll once again see the familiar faces of the courthouse staff. We always hope (or at least I do), perhaps naively, for the possibility of a more favorable outcome, and so often we leave, as we did today, with our hopes dashed but not broken. Justice delayed and denied once more.